What Whiskey, Angels, and Ecology Share

March 11, 2017 | Posted in: Sociology

“Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.”  Charlotte Brontë


In the world of whiskey distilling there’s a phenomenon, as unavoidable as the sun rising, that occurs when adolescent whiskey is placed in its oak cask to mature: though it’s filled to the brim when the cask is sealed, about 2% of the whiskey has vanished by the time it’s opened. Early distillers in Scotland called this loss the “angels’ share” (my kind of angels). Today we have a scientific explanation which tells us that the pores in the wooden casks cause a slight loss in liquid through evaporation, but there’s a grace to this early view of loss that is relevant today.

The truth that every whiskey maker knows is this: you must accept the loss of some quantity in order to gain in quality. You could avoid evaporation by choosing a metal cask, but then, oh then, the taste will never develop, the flavor will be soulless. No, to have the best whiskey, you must accept the loss, you must accept the angels’ share.

This necessity of giving up some for betterment overall is a principle that extends far beyond just the realm of fine spirits. Lately I’ve been thinking of “nature’s share,” how little we leave of the biosphere for all our fellow species and ecosystems to make due with. To even use “nature” as a word that describes everything apart from humankind points out the inherent disconnect we big brained apes feel towards the biosphere within which we evolved and without which we would disappear. But it’s a necessary concept in order for us to get to the heart of a new way of relating with our environments, and the other beings who share them with us.

Sharing being the key word here. Because, let’s get real, we humans are terrible at sharing, both with one another and with the vast web of life that we rely on. In our short time as humans, we’ve remade the world to meet our needs and desires, leaving precious little space untouched. Globally our species ecological footprint is so heavy on the earth that we’re running at an ecological deficit every year (and certain countries are chiefly to blame for this crisis, ahem, United States). Translation: the amount of resources many people use to sustain their lifestyles outpaces the amount of resources the earth can renew every year. So, if we just continued on our merry way as is, there will still be forests for us to cut down, but there won’t be for our children.

Illustration from Jugend, German illustrated weekly magazine for art and life, Volume 19.2, 1914.

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retread at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hand of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminaries and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface—preserving some pockets as ‘wilderness,’ denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every contingent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox. Diane Ackerman, The Human Age

We’re an amazingly adaptive, creative, capable species, but we’re also controlling, short-sighted, and isolationist. Double edged sword, and all that. Our greatest gift, our impulse for discovery, needs balancing with an empathetic and intelligent understanding of the planet we live on. It’s finite, it’s diverse, and it’s fragile, even more so since we humans began wielding our tools.

Now, by this point, you may be thinking that I lured you here under false pretenses. You were like “Yay, whiskey and angels, that sounds chipper!” and I was like “Yeah, and let me tie that to the ecological crisis!” But there’s an optimism to this comparison: to begin restoring balance to our earthly overconsumption, all we need to do is share. Back to kindergarten we go!

Like whiskey in a metal cask vs. a wooden one, earth isn’t as lovely when you try to squeeze every last drop for your own. Food doesn’t taste as delicious when the soil is overused and pesticide-ridden. A walk in the wilds isn’t as lovely when the wild critters are dead and gone. The air isn’t as nice to breathe when the atmosphere is polluted. People aren’t as friendly when they can barely pay their bills despite working 40 hour weeks. Sharing is the solution, sharing is the all encompassing word that knits together the many individual actions we’re taking towards a cleaner, healthier, sustainable future.

Bible Primer: For use in the primary department of Sunday schools, Adolf Hult, 1919.

Each of us finding ways to share more is literally a world-changer. And there are so many changes we can get on board with. Creating habitats in our gardens, neighborhoods, and open spaces for other species to live. Joining neighbors in sharing little used items so not everyone in the world has to buy a ladder. Sharing food that would otherwise go to waste and transportation that would otherwise clog our streets. Offering your time to help clean up some of our messes. Donating money to causes you believe in. Spreading your learning of how to live more simply and happily. Trust those whiskey-drunk angels, what you give up only sweetens what remains.

“The miracle is this: The more we share the more we have.” Leonard Nimoy


Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.